Ed Southern, the Executive Director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, was given the Ethel N. Fortner Writer and Community Award on Thursday, March 5, at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg. Over the years, this award has been given to ardent supporters of the arts in communities ranging from journalists to activists to publishers.
North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame inductee Jaki Shelton Green introduced Ed, who, from his middle class origins growing up in Winston-Salem “across the street from the barbwired pasture of a working farm,” has written three books and guided the Network to 70 percent membership growth in the first five years of his tenure.
Here are Ed’s remarks upon receiving this reward.
“Thank you, Jaki, for that kind introduction. And thank you to President Paul Baldasare, and to everyone here at St. Andrews. I am honored to accept the Fortner Writer and Community Award, and humbled to join such a distinguished list of past winners. I am especially flattered to be honored along with Allan Gurganus, and grateful to get to speak before he does.*
“I would also like to recognize my family—those who are here with me tonight, as well as those who couldn’t be—and thank them for the love and support they’ve given me to this point, and hope it continues.
“And of course, I would like to thank the staff, trustees, and members of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, some of whom braved the bad weather to be here, and most of whom have made my work and my tenure as Executive Director a lot easier than you might think.
“Not that I’m giving this award back.
“I’m going to stop extending my thanks right there, even though—well, because—there are, literally, thousands of others that I really ought to thank: all the writers and readers and lovers of literature, famous and anonymous, now and in the past, who made and maintained the environment in which an organization like the North Carolina Writers’ Network could exist, much less thrive; who turned North Carolina into The Writingest State, to use that felicitous phrase first coined by a previous Fortner Award winner, the late, great Doris Betts.
“The Network has adopted this phrase as a motto, a description, and a mission—to make sure North Carolina stays the Writingest State. We stand fast against any and all challengers to this title, whether those challenges come from the other 49 states, or—as it turns out—from right here at home.
“We stand ready to face these challengers, but—to tell you the truth, just among us friends—I don’t worry too much about them.
“No, I worry about us—all of us who love the written word—not doing our jobs. I worry about clichés, stilted dialog, lazy thinking, lack of observation, lack of humor, wit, and surprise.
“To be honest, I worry sometimes about our community being too encouraging, too nice—accepting, even celebrating, anything less than excellence.
“As long as we avoid the kind of self-congratulation that leads straight to irrelevancy, the literary community of this state is long since strong enough to see off, to face down, to overcome, to correct, any dismantling that some may seek of the structures that have long supported us.
“We will write and read poems, short stories, novels, memoirs. No budget cut has yet been conceived that can stop the human need to create, to hear, and to read good stories, well told.
“The state of North Carolina has a great story. No one should be able to take this state’s story away from us. And no one should have to remind us that those who best tell the best stories, always win in the end.
*North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame inductee Allan Gurganus was later honored with the 2015 Sam Ragan Fine Arts Award. In his acceptance speech, Gurganus admitted he had, over the years, perhaps stretched the truth in his writing, but it was “truth that needed stretching.”